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American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 144-151
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The "Logic of a New Order, the Logic of Living Things"
During the 1950s, a new corporate architecture was taking shape across the US, and the underlying aesthetic, scientific, technological, and social thinking that gave rise to this phenomenon is the subject of Reinhold Martin's book, The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (2003). Architecture is, in Martin's reading, a technology of organization, a means by which values and modes of response are "naturalized," a means by which the human is regulated. It is also a part of the total system of signs that compose the aesthetic and intellectual order of a period, or to use Norbert Wiener's word, the "technique" of the time, which in turn reflects the thought of the age (191).
Though centered in the 1950s, Martin's book implicitly opens up questions that require a longer perspective, reaching back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and forward to Robert Venturi. I'm especially interested in the fate of that core term in American art, organic form, and in the scientific thought that underlies it, not to mention the tensions between order and disorder that are subsumed under its rubric. Let's begin in medias res, at the famous competition in 1922 for the best design for the Chicago Tribune's new tower. With submissions from all over the world, the second-place award went to a work which was destined to have a far greater impact on skyscraper design than Raymond Hood's winning entry—Eliel Saarinen's elegant drawings for a towering setback structure that would find its echoes in the later Rockefeller Center complex in Manhattan and in many other buildings of the 1920s and '30s. Saarinen's drawings elicited a comment from Louis Sullivan, recorded in Martin's book, that, in retrospect, signals a pivotal moment in the history of American thought: "Qualifying as it does in every technical regard, and conforming to the mandatory items of the official program of instructions, it goes freely in advance, and, with a steel frame as a thesis, displays a high science of design, such as the world up to this day had neither known nor surmised. In its single solidarity of concentrated intention, there is revealed a logic of a new order, the logic of [End Page 144] living things, and this inexorable logic of life is most graciously accepted and set forth in fluency of a form" (Sullivan, "Chicago Tribune" 152). In praising Saarinen's design, Sullivan was placing it above Hood's neo-Gothic winning entry and above the more radically abstract design of Walter Gropius. The Finnish Saarinen didn't get the prize, Sullivan believed, because the Tribune would not award it to a foreigner. But in giving Hood's American design precedence, the prize committee did, in effect, award it to a "foreign" project, one that was based, at least, on old European models; and in celebrating Saarinen, Sullivan was celebrating an "American" aesthetic that he had himself helped to create.
The terms of Sullivan's assessment are worth pausing over: Saarinen's steel-framed tower exhibits a "high science of design" and the "logic of a new order," language that associates it approvingly with the ethos of a machine culture. Yet at the same time, it embodies the "logic of living things," an "inexorable logic of life," terms that associate it with nature. It is Saarinen's synthesis of technology and nature that Sullivan especially approves—articulating the ideal that would continue through the twentieth century—and it is a synthesis that Sullivan had himself, in his own Chicago office buildings, already embodied, though in somewhat different form. (For Sullivan, the natural form was an essential decorative element, visible in the façade of the building, while the structure embodied the logic of form following function.) The Chicago School, including Frank Lloyd Wright, had by 1922 had a profound impact on European...